Category Archives: Western

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 11

Red rocked back on his feet, stumbled a few steps, but he didn’t fall. “Something to be proud of,” he thought. “Die on your feet.”

And then he fell backwards catching himself on his hands. His guts felt like they were on fire, and the taste of metal and bile welled up in his mouth. “Goddamnit,” he muttered.

John Quinn stood as still as a marble statue, his only movement the tiny circles the barrel of his gun made as he breathed. “Yeah.”

Red pushed himself up until he was sitting, grunting in pain. Sweat dripped down his face. He breathed quick, shallow breaths. “Why,” he began. “Why is it I get shot and I wind up having to hold my guts in, but when you got shot all it does is slow you down?”

“Body armor. Worn it for years, ever since I was your age.”

Red snarled, as best as he was able. “And where’d you get that damn automatic?”

“Killed a man and took it from him.”

“Cheating. That’s cheating.”

“Says the man bleeding to death.”

“You bastard. You villain.”

“Villain? You think I’m the villain here?” John Quinn’s face twisted with anger. He moved to close the distance between the two of them. “Your brother pulled a gun in a bar and took a woman hostage! You fired into a crowd of people trying to shoot me. And you think I’m the goddamn villain?”

Red snorted. Blood dribbled from his mouth and his nose.“Killed my brother. Challenged me to a duel. Didn’t even try to talk to me. Or him. Or get the crowd out of the way.” Red looked up at John Quinn, grinned at him with blood-stained teeth. “You just started shooting without even thinking. That’s all you’ve ever done, isn’t it? How you solve everything, ain’t it? Bastard. Bastard.” Red’s voice trailed off, his will to speak and to curse ebbing out of his body alongside his blood.

John Quinn stared down at Red. He raised his foot, put it on the younger man’s torso, and pushed him flat on his back. He raised his pistol, aimed it between the younger man’s glassy, unfocused eyes, and he pulled the trigger.

* * *

“God almighty,” old man Smythe said. “What in the hell is going on?”

John Quinn walked past the old man without a word. He paused when he reached the front door, his hand on the knob, his hat casting shadow all across his face. “Get the undertaker,” he said. “Red Peterson’s dead on the roof. His guns are up there. Keep ’em and sell ’em. I’ll be leaving some money at Rosie’s. Anything selling his gear doesn’t cover, you can take out of that money.”

He pushed open the door, and without looking over his shoulder, he stepped through and called out, “I’m sorry for your trouble, Mr. Smythe.”

* * *

Rose of Sharon walked into her bedroom to find John Quinn stuffing his things into his pack, his shoulders slumped. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Leaving. Keep the money I have in the safe and use it for any restitution folks might seek. I don’t want it and I don’t need it.”

“You think you can just walk in here, grab your things, and walk out without a word?”

John Quinn sighed. “Well, I thought I could if I was quick and quiet, but I guess nothing gets by you, huh?”

Rose of Sharon stared at the back of John Quinn’s head, and she walked forward and shoved him onto the couch he was packing his things on. He grunted in pain. “Goddamnit, woman, that son of a bitch busted my ribs! What in hell’s wrong with you?”

“You are,” she said. “You’re everything that’s wrong with me. I love you, you dumb son of a bitch, and you go and almost get yourself killed, and then you try and sneak off without a word.”

John Quinn looked down at the floor, hardwood with a gloss varnish and a bright yet tasteful rug, save where his own dusty boot prints had soiled it.

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Didn’t want to face them. Folks who’d been friends with Red. Folks who might have gotten killed in the crossfire.”

“Nobody was friends with Red. He ain’t the kind of person a body gets close to. And ain’t nobody dead, either. Sandy Bergess took a bullet in his rear, but he ain’t dead.”

“Sandy Bergess took a bullet meant for me.”

“John, nobody’s going to hang to you. You’re not going to go to prison. Nobody’s going to try and put a knife in your back or a bullet in your head. Just calm down a minute and be reasonable.”

“No, Rose. I’m going.” He hefted the pack onto his shoulders, and moved towards the door. Rose of Sharon held her ground, her eyes locked on his. They were inches apart, neither of them giving.

Finally, Rose of Sharon closed her eyes and shook her head. “You’re a coward,” she said, stepping out of his way. “You’re just a coward.”

John Quinn walked away without saying another word or casting another glance back at Rose of Sharon. It wasn’t until he was a mile outside of town, a man in black walking the deserts by pale moonlight that he broke his silence and said, “No. I’m just a villain.”

And that’s it for this story! Be here on Friday for something new. Thanks for reading!

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 10

Red Peterson turned to flee across the roof of Smythe’s, his feet kicking up flecks of loose gravel from the tar of the roof, but there was nowhere to run. There were other buildings he could flee onto, their walls butted up against the supply store, but there was nowhere to hide, no obvious way off the roof. Well, there was one way, but it was at least twenty feet down. He’d break a leg, apt as not, and even if he didn’t, John Quinn would just shoot him in the back while he stumbled to his feet.

Red glanced over his shoulder. The man in black followed him, cold and implacable as a machine. Red turned and took off across the rooftops, his path winding and swerving, partially from half-remembered advice to never run in a straight line if you were being shot at and partially because he kept losing his footing as he looked behind him and the gravel slipped underneath him.

Thunder cracked. The gravel a few feet away from Red exploded, bits flying up and stinging his face. “Guess the advice was worth a damn after all,” he thought. Behind him, John Quinn fired again, another fountain of gravel spraying up around him. “He’s toying with me. The bastard’s toying with me.”

Another shot. Anger flared in Red’s heart. His brother was dead, and the man who’d murdered him in cold blood was one good shot away from eliminating what was left of the family. “I ain’t gonna die getting shot in the back,” he told himself. “I ain’t gonna die like that.”

Red spun around and dropped to the ground in a single moment, pulling a holdout pistol from the waistband of his pants as he did. It was a small thing, with only two shots, but it would have to do.

John Quinn dove to the side, the bullets streaking past him. His revolver slipped from his hand as he fell, tumbled side over side and off the roof. Red’s eyes went ride, a triumphant grin on his face, and for a moment, he forgot himself. He took his time, trained his pistol on the older man’s steely face, and pulled the trigger. But it clicked empty, the two rounds it held fired to frighten John Quinn into making a mistake.

Which he had. Red looked at the man’s hands, at the ground around him. He was unarmed.

A smile crept across Red’s face. John Quinn watched him in silence, and the two men pushed themselves up off the rooftop. Red was on his feet in seconds, and he watched with satisfaction as John Quinn pushed himself up slowly, painfully. Of course he did. His slow, deliberate steps hadn’t been some measured intimidation tactic.

It’d been the broken gait of a tired old man. That’s all he was. He wasn’t a legend. He wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t an angel or a devil or anything folks said he was, anything he himself had said he was.

He was just a tired old man.

Red drew a knife from his boot and another from his belt. John Quinn had just gotten to his feet when a knife clattered to the ground in front of him. He looked down at it wordlessly, and then back at the younger man. Red was grinning, tossing the other blade back and forth from hand to hand. “Come on, then! Just you and me! Pick it up and let’s do this!”

John Quinn said nothing. He stared wordlessly ahead, his eyes like coal. Wrinkles framed them, his whole face a patchwork of scars and lines. “Are you scared?” Red asked. “You thinking, ‘This is it. I’m going to die?’ You thinking, ‘I can’t beat him. He’s younger, he’s faster, and he’s stronger?’ Is that what you’re thinking?”

Red Peterson’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Pick it up, old man. Pick it up, or die unarmed and helpless. You ain’t got no other choice.”

John Quinn looked down at the knife at his feet. His shoulders slumped in resignation. Red smiled. The older man was beaten. Exhausted. Broken.

The older man reached behind his back with his right arm and pulled a pistol free. Red’s eyes went wide. John Quinn fired again, and again, and again.

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 9

The door collapsed inward, the bolt smashing through the frame and the door swinging back on its hinges.

Red wasn’t waiting on the other side to put a bullet in him. That was good.

The stockroom was dark. Dark and silent, without even the slightest trace of Red’s breathing, of him pushing sacks of grain and crates of goods into a more defensible position. There was only John Quinn’s own breathing. His heartbeat echoed in his ears.

Taunt the younger man to try and intimidate him into making a mistake? He’d give away his position. Walk into the room and try to be stealthy? If Red were paying any attention, he’d just shoot John Quinn in the back.

Something different, then. Hope that he’s looking, shut your eyes, hope you don’t got deaf.

John Quinn raised his revolver and fired into the ceiling. The flash from the muzzle burned even through his eyelids. The shot echoed like a bear’s roar. Underneath it, he heard a muffled, “Christ!” coming from his left. He thought. It didn’t matter. Hesitation would get him killed.

He lowered his shoulder and charged into a shelf, sending it teetering to the ground. Red swore and fired blindly. John Quin stepped to the side, hoping against hope that the younger man couldn’t tell where he was.

Red fired wildly. John Quinn stood his ground.

A round scraped the side of his head, tearing off his left ear. The world exploded into a cacophony of pain and agonized screaming. John Quinn fired blindly back, heedless of where his bullets were going. He dropped to a lurching, crawling shamble, fired over his shoulder, the explosion of each cartridge like a knife digging at was once his ear. He crashed into shelves. Something thick as molasses and smelling like citrus spilled on him. The hammer of his revolver fell on an empty chamber; he dropped it and pulled another from its holster. A heavy weight crashed into him from behind and John Quinn collapsed into the ground, feeling for all the world like someone had stomped on his spine.

“Shot me,” he thought. “Got a good shot, but the armor stopped it, thank God.”

The shooting stopped. From his one good ear, John Quinn heard footsteps echoing and another door slamming shut. Red Peterson was going for the roof.

John Quinn pushed himself to his feet, pushed through the pain that arced across his back. His mind ran through numbers, the mathematics of death. Red had fired at least twelve rounds at him, two guns’ worth. But he had at least one more, maybe two. Six to ten more rounds, minimum. And he could have knives.

John Quinn had six shots in the revolver in his hand, eight in the pistol hidden in the small of his back. He had the armor, but a fat lot of good it did his ear. He had a bloody

He hoped it would be enough.

John Quinn stepped uncertainly forward, trying to will the unsteadiness from his legs and failing. But it didn’t matter. The staircase leading up was only a few feet away, and when he got to the door at the top, it pushed open easily.

* * *

Red Peterson was waiting for him on the roof, and he put two bullets In John Quinn’s chest. But the older man didn’t fall. He stumbled back a step, and then he looked up, hate in his eyes and a grimace on his face.

Red’s eyes went wide. He pulled the trigger on his gun again, but the hammer fell against a spent cartridge, and again, and again. He backed up, still pulling the trigger, not believing anything that was happening. The gun couldn’t be empty. The bullets couldn’t have missed. The bastard couldn’t be unhurt. Red had emptied two guns already shooting at him, and now he’d have to drop a third, and the son of a bitch was still on his feat. It was impossible, but there he was. Slowly advancing, an ancient, enormous revolver gripped in his hand. Blood was smeared across his face from some wound.

Red saw him, and he knew every story he’d heard about this man, every warning, was true. “Demon,” he whispered.

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 8

The bullet hit the ground a few yards away and to the right of John Quinn, just like he thought it would. Red was right-handed, and he’d drawn too quickly and overcompensated. John Quinn had stood completely still, his shoulders squared to the other man to present as broad a target as possible.

After all, Red’s shots hitting the armor he’d been wearing for twenty some years now was far more preferable than those bullets penetrating a weak spot under his arm because he’d tried to be clever and present a narrow target.

With his feet firmly planted, John Quinn brought his revolver up and aimed carefully, lining the front post up with the notch cut into the hammer and aligning the whole thing with Red’s grimacing, determined face. A moment before John Quinn pulled the trigger, Red did something he hadn’t expected at all.

He turned to the side and ran towards the crowd, his left arm raised to block his head, his right arm hooked across it and firing wildly in John Quinn’s direction.

Men shouted. Women screamed. Children cried. John Quinn dropped to the ground and swore, fired without looking, thought, “Stupid, stupid, stupid. The only spot on you he can hit now is your head. Stupid.” But it didn’t matter; Red’s shots were coming nowhere near him, were disappearing into the crowd.

“Christ almighty,” John Quinn thought. “He doesn’t give a damn who he hits. He’s just covering his escape.” He fought the urge to return fire the same way, but couldn’t bring himself to. The bastard was five feet from the crowd now, the angle was spoiled, and he was showing no signs of stopping. In fact he was heading for Smythe’s Supplies, it looked like.

Smythe’s, with its boxes of cartridges cast and loaded by local smiths, with its food and its drink, with the easily barricaded back stockroom. With its roof access. If he could block the door in the back, get it boarded and nailed up, there would be quick way to get him out of the building.

Short of burning the damn thing down. Standing outside with a bundle of lit torches, screaming threats and promises at ears too scared or too stubborn or too simple to believe them. Glass bottles full of kerosene to get the fire going, to break and splash on anyone dumb enough to get too close to a window. A loaded revolver. Another one, so there’s no need to reload when the first one runs empty. A third, just to be safe. A heart as cold and as lifeless as stone.

John Quinn shook his head. “Not again,” he snarled. “Never again.” He leaped to his feet. He charged forward. A cloud of dust appeared ahead of him and to the left. “Move,” he silently willed the few townsfolk who still hadn’t fled yet. “God damn you, move!”

A shot rang out. A man dropped. Dark hair, tan skin. Was it the one from the poker game? Enrique? No time to check. Push on. Red was at the door to the store, pushing it open, throwing it shut behind himself. John Quinn was only a few steps behind him, lowering his shoulder to smash through the door, praying the kid kept running, that he wasn’t smart enough to dive behind a counter, turn, and leave his gun trained on the door.

He wasn’t. Instead, John Quinn found Grant Smythe standing behind the counter, confusion painted across his wizened old face. “What in Hell’s going on?” the old man shouted, but John Quinn paid him no mind. He raised his gun, held it at the ready. His eyes swept across the room, the counters and shelves and displays, the few confused and cowering customers. There was no sign of Red.

“Where is he?”

“…can’t just come barging in here! You’re going to scare my customers! You–”

John Quinn roared. “Where is he?”

Smythe’s face went pale. He stuttered, tripped over his words. “There. In there.”

The old man was pointing at the stockroom. Of course he was. It couldn’t be any other way.

John Quinn slowly advanced. He moved to the side of the door, strained his ears to hear whatever he could through the other side. There was the sound of something heavy being moved, wood scraping against wood. But that was fine. If Red Peterson was trying to establish some defenses for himself, then he couldn’t be watching the door that closely.

John Quinn shifted to stand in front of the door. “Crouch,” he thought. “Square to the door, as small a target as possible.” He took a deep breath. He paused for a moment, aimed for the lock, and kicked as hard as he could.

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 7

Red Peterson stood in the street. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He spat into the dust of the road. The sun beat down on him hard from directly overhead, and he cast no shadow. Folks watched from the windows of their homes and their shops. A few braver souls stood on the cracked stone and the wooden planks that served as a sidewalk, but none were foolish enough to get any closer than that to the killers before them.

He looked around at the citizens of the town, and he grinned. “I guess the dreaded John Quinn ain’t going to show up, then! I guess he’s too much of a coward and a scoundrel to face justice for murdering my brother! Ain’t that so?”
A deep voice called out, “Whatever justice you think you got to mete out, let’s have it.” John Quinn stepped out of Eusatce Creely’s place.

“You friends with the mortician now? You trying to get in with the man who’s going to be handling your worthless corpse?”

John Quinn raised his left hand to shield his eyes from the sun and dropped his right hand down to the butt of his revolver. John Quinn walked out into the middle of the street, the only sounds in the air the chirping of birds, the barking of dogs, the snorting and nickering of the horses.

His eyes darted around, checking the corners of buildings, the windows where Red could have stationed some assassin to shoot him in the head and be done with the whole thing. He didn’t think that was the case, though. From the little he’d interacted with the two boys, Red seemed to have a cooler head than his brother. If he hadn’t enacted some scheme to kill John Quinn in Rosie’s, then he probably wouldn’t stoop to having someone else shoot the older man dead from a second-story window.

“You ever done one of these, boy?” John Quinn called out. Red was silent. “There’s rules to follow, you see. Otherwise this ain’t about justice; you’re just a madman trading bullets with another madman where innocent folk can get hurt.”

“Christ, do you ever stop talking?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you have somewhere you’d rather be?” Red said nothing. His hands hovered near his hip, telling the world that he was ready to pull his revolver at a moment’s notice. The time for talk was over. John Quinn turned his head to the crowd and called out, “Who’s got a revolver on them? I need somebody to fire off a round. We’ll draw and shoot, yeah?”

Red said nothing. John Quinn sighed, loud and exaggerated. A lone voice, a child’s voice called out, “I’ve got a gun, Mister.”

“Diego! Silencio!”

John Quinn smiled as reassuringly as he could at the dark-haired woman and her son, a boy in that ephemeral state too young to be a man but too old to be a child. “He only has to fire the one shot, ma’am. There’s nothing to it.”

The woman opened her mouth, but the child pulled a small revolver free from the waistband of his pants before she could voice her argument.

“Would you look at that,” John Quinn said aloud. “Barely old enough to shave, but already knows how to handle a firearm with more sense than most.”

Red growled out a curse, but the specifics were lost over the distance between the two gunslingers. The two men got into position, staring each other down across the dusty, barren soil of the road. The crowd backed away even as more people appeared to watch the duel. “Whenever, you’re ready, son,” John Quinn called out to the boy with the revolver. The kid nodded his head and raised his gun to the sky. He fired, the soft pop of a smaller caliber good for little more than hunting varmints.

The two men’s hands dropped to their sides, little more than blurs that none in the audience could follow, but there was no mistaking the end result.

Red Peterson, twenty-some years John Quinn’s junior and seething with fury over the death of his younger brother, drew first.

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 6

Red’s anger lasted only a moment before he regained control of himself. Fury gave way to shock and then disgust. “Is that all you got to say? I tell you you’re a villain and that I’m going to end you, and that’s all you’ve got?” Red shook his head. “Jesus, do you want me to kill you?”

“You can try.” John Quinn reached for his glass of whiskey and emptied it, his eyes locked on the younger man’s. “I’ll see you in the street in an hour’s time. We’ll do this right. No talking, no posturing, no grabbing innocent goddamn girls and threatening to kill them. No money. Just you and me and the guns.”

John Quinn smiled. A network of wrinkles formed at his eyes, a map of a lifetime of pain and violence. “Hope you’re good at the fast draw, son.”

“I ought to shoot you dead right now, you old bastard.”

“You don’t have a gun. I do.”

Red looked over his shoulder at Franklin. The man was busy looking at an empty spot on the wall. Red snorted and turned back to face John Quinn. “Do you now? Of course you do. I bet you got these folks so afraid of you, you can just walk in and take whatever you like. Break any rule. Is that it?”

John Quinn looked around the room, regarded the eyes of the men and women there. “You know what Rose told me when she realized who I’d shot?

“She said, ‘He’s going to kill us all.’

“You think I’m the villain? Maybe you’re right, but you know what?” John Quinn folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. He smiled. He tapped himself on the chest. “That’s what people say about me. ‘He’s going to kill us all.’

“You know what those people see when they see us? Forces of nature, boy. Like a wildfire, or a twister, or a thunderstorm. Unstoppable. Terrible. Maybe even a little bit awe-inspiring, from a distance.

“But you’d best pray they don’t get too close to you.

“Here we are, in the middle of a crowded bar, and ain’t nobody talking but us.

“Outside. Noon. Nobody has to get hurt but us.”

* * *

Red went somewhere else. John didn’t much care where. He figured one way or another he’d be done with this whole business in a few hours.

Slowly, the people in the bar seemed to begin breathing again. John Quinn raised his hand, gestured for another drink. Someone slapped him in the back of the head from behind.

“What in the hell is wrong with you? Do you want him to kill you?”

John Quinn sighed. “What do you think, Rose? You think I want to get shot dead in the street?”

“I think you’re an old fool.” She slapped him again. “Hell, I know you’re an old fool!”

John Quinn snarled. “Damn it, what in the hell are you hitting me for?” He turned to look over his shoulder and saw Rose standing behind him, her hands balled into fists, tears cutting through her make-up. “What’s wrong?”

“He’s going to kill you, you fool! He’s younger. He’s faster. He’s going to put a bullet in you before you can even–”

“I’m more experienced. You think I’ve never been in a duel or a shootout before? You think he has?” He snorted. “There’s a world of difference between shooting some dumb bastard in the back in the middle of nowhere and facing someone head on. Two men meet with forty feet between them, and it ain’t just the slow one who dies. It’s the worse shot. It’s the unsteady hand.” He smiled. “It’s the one that ain’t been wearing bulletproof goddamn armor for half his life.”

Rose of Sharon stared down at the older man, her face hardening into stone even as the warm tears continued to slowly fall from her eyes. “And what if he shoots you in the head?”

John Quinn looked away. Some of the other patrons and workers turned to look at him and Rose of Sharon, but only for a moment before quickly turning away. “That won’t happen.”

“Oh, no? It won’t.”

John said nothing. He simply shook his head.

“You know, I know you don’t believe that. I know you don’t believe the things people say about you. You’re too smart for it. You know you’re not invincible.”

“Of course I’m not.”

“Then what are you doing?”

He’d shot that fool kid, Billy Joe, rather than try and reason with him. Or he had tried, but not very had. He thought of Elliot Whitmore; for every person who’d ever met John Quinn that had wound up like him, there were two that had wound up like Keith Rivers. He thought of angry young men with guns. He thought of his mother, forty some years dead, of his father bleeding out before his eyes. He thought of all the children he’d left parentless one way or another.

“What I have to,” he said.

“You know, you ain’t a kid with no family anymore.”

“I still ain’t got a family.”

“You could,” Rose of Sharon said. She sniffed once. She wiped the last of the tears away from her eyes. There’d be no more shed for John Quinn that day. She turned. She walked away. She called over her should. “You could have.”

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 5

Red Peterson came to town two days later on a chestnut horse. Like his brother, he had a shock of red hair atop his head, a sprinkling of freckles on his face. He wore blue jeans and a white shirt, and a single revolver sat low in its holster on his left hip.

His face was expressionless, his blue eyes as hard and as cold as ice. Folks watching from their homes shut their doors and their windows as Red passed by. Those who were in the street, with tasks they couldn’t abandon or else nowhere to go, turned their faces away and prayed silent prayers to be left alone. A little girl no older than ten, thin, with dark hair and wide eyes and a dirt-stained dress watched the rider. She stood motionless as he stopped aside her and Red Peterson gazed down at her with his boyishly handsome face and his cruel eyes.

“I’m looking for the coward and murderer John Quinn.” The little girl stared up at him, offered him no response. “The man who shot my brother, little sister. Do you know where he is?”

The little girl pointed further down the road and said, “Rosie’s.” Red tipped his hat to her and continued along.

* * *

The inside of Rosie’s was just like Red remembered it, although he hadn’t been inside in over a year. It was full of the sound of men and women laughing, the smell of smoke, glasses clinking against each other, animal lust hanging heavy in the air. It brought back memories, some happy, some unhappy. Days spent laughing with friends. Nights spent sobbing into the shoulder of a woman whose affection he had paid for. His love, Maria. The hunter, Gustav. Buy Billy Joe his first drink. Buying Billy Joe his first woman.

It was too much. He stood in the doorway, his eyes screwed tightly shut like dams holding back the torrent of what was inside him. He took a deep breath, let it out, opened his eyes again.

“Going to need your weapons, Red.” Red looked over his right shoulder. Franklin sat there, his enormous heads folded neatly on a table, an arsenal behind him. Little holdout pistols, big irons, knives of all kinds.

“I’m here for the man that murdered my brother, Frank.”

“I know, Red. That’s why I need you to empty your pockets. Ms. Rose ain’t going to have no violence in here.”

Red snorted. “No more violence, you mean. Did you forget that a dumb kid was shot dead in here just a few days ago.”

Franklin looked up at Red. He tapped the tabletop. “No, Red. I surely have not.”

“He’s got his guns, don’t he? Ain’t it only fair that I keep mine?”

“You know the rules.” Red sighed and took off his belt, set it on the table. He turned to go, and Franklin said, “Everything, Red. Everything.”

A fixed blade, seven inches long. A folder small enough to keep in a pocket. A snubnosed revolver tucked into a boot. Two thin bags of lead shot meant to be tightly gripped in a fistfight. Franklin’s eyes went a little wide at everything Red had managed to hide on his person. “Satisfied?” he asked, and all Franklin could do was nod in silence.

It was easy to pick John Quinn out of the crowd. He sat alone, a black hat and a glass half-drained of liquor on the table in front of him. His eyes, dark and hard as flint.

Dark and hard and locked on his own.

The two men stared at each other from across the room, forty feet between them. The force of John Quinn’s stare was enough to stop Red in his tracks. But only for a moment. The younger man continued his forward advance until he was standing directly in front of the elder one, and then he sat down.

Rosie’s was silent, half the eyes in the building locked on the two men, the other half desperately trying to find something, anything else to look at. Ages passed. The room buzzed with nervous energy, a spring stretching to its breaking point, a gun cocked and ready to fire.

“Your brother died screaming about debts and threatening to shoot some poor girl in the head,” the old man said.

Red frowned. “My brother died shot through the neck. He died suffering.”

The older man shook his head, the silver hair at his temples . “I ain’t going to apologize for shooting him. I don’t make it a habit of apologizing for the deaths of fools that can’t control their liquor, their temper, or their bad ideas.”

Red’s nostrils flared. His eyes narrowed to slits. His lips pulled back in a snarl. “No, I suspect you don’t. I suspect you ain’t never apologized for any of the people you killed in cold blood. I suspect you ain’t never done anything but go from town to town, dressed the way you do and walking the way you do and talking the way you do and killing whoever you please for whatever reason you invent.

“I know you, John Quinn. I know you for the black-hearted villain you are and for the ruin you visit on the people in your path. And I ain’t never going to apologize for shooting you, neither.”

The older man looked Red in the eyes. He blinked, once, twice. But he didn’t turn away. “No,” he said. “No, I suspect you won’t.”

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 4

Short, late post tonight. My apologies, team.

John Quinn rubbed his cheek, his flesh still stinging where Rose of Sharon had struck him. Or maybe he just thought it did. Or maybe he just had to keep his hands moving so he had something to focus other than what she was telling him.

“Red’s a farmhand at the Robbins place. About two days’ ride north. He’s a good enough kid; doesn’t cause any trouble, always squares his debts. But he’s got a temper.”

“Show me one of them good old boys that doesn’t.”

Rose of Sharon shook her head. “He’s not the kind to flip a table and throw a punch. He’s the kind to sit there quietly and leave. He gets a grudge, he nurses it and dwells on it until it fills him up, you hear me? He doesn’t pull his gun and fire like the things a snake fit to bite him; he takes his time and he aims and he measures his shots in pure hate.” Rose of Sharon went silent for a moment. Quietly, she added, “I guess he’s kind of like you that way.”

John Quinn snorted. “Kind of like me?”

“You know that story you told me about the house you burned down and the kid you shot in the face?”

John Quinn winced. He’d told Rose about Zechariah Wharton and Keith Rivers once, in a moment of weakness, and he’d never forgiven himself for it. To her credit, she almost never brought it up. Almost. “Yeah.”

“Well, a year back, back when you was still out… out doing whatever it is that you do, there was a man staying in town. A hunter from back east. He was courting one of my girls, telling her how he was going to take her back home with him and they’d have a good life together in wherever the hell he came from. Now, Red Peterson liked this girl, and he was none too pleased when he came in one day and found her hanging off the arm of the hunter. But he saw her happy, and he didn’t do or say nothing.

“Not until the hunter told the girl they were going to get married and then disappeared the next morning without a word.

“Red tried to comfort the girl, but she wasn’t having none of it. She pushed him away and just set to crying over her own broken heart. No one could do anything to cheer her up, and Red just sat watching her suffer from the other side of the bar, his face getting darker and darker. Finally, he just got up and he set off to the east.”

“Went to go beat the hunter to a pulp, is that it?”

Rose of Sharon was silent. “What’d the kid do?”

“I don’t rightly know,” she began. “But there was man that came from the east a few days later. He was asking if anybody in town had gone missing recently. Said he saw a bunch of buzzards circling a spot not too far from the road, so he went to go check it out. Found them feasting on a body.”

“The hunter?”

“Probably. All he said was he found a body that’d met a bad end.”

John Quinn arched an eyebrow. “A bad end? What’s that mean?”

Rose of Sharon shrugged and looked away. John Quinn frowned. “Why are you telling me this?”

Rose of Sharon turned her head back to John Quinn. She studied him for a moment. Concern “You know where I’ve heard that before? ‘Met a bad end?’”

John Quinn shook his head.

“From you. The only other person I’ve ever heard say that is you. The only other person I’ve heard of doing something that a body would have to say that is you”

John Quinn said nothing. He couldn’t hold Rose of Sharon’s gaze, but he wouldn’t look away.

“And that’s the kind of person we’re up against, John Quinn. A man just like you.”

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 3

A gunshot echoed through Rosie’s like the crowing of a rooster gone mad.

John was out of bed and on his feet before he could think, his hands pulling his pants up to his waist, his mind registering the weight of his revolvers on his hips even as he cinched his belt. He was an animal operating off of pure instinct, and as his left hand opened the door that led from Rose of Sharon’s bedroom to the second-story landing, his right hand drew the ironwood-gripped .45, thumbed back the hammer, raised the gun to the level of his eye.

“Get out here, John Quinn! Stop hiding behind your whore and give me my money!”

The kid, Billy Joe Peterson, was down in the lobby, a revolver in each hand. Two men of about his own age stood at his sides, both armed with shotguns. He turned from side to side, his revolvers held at the ready. All around the three marauders, the girls and the patrons who were already awake watched uneasily. Some of the cowered in fear; the more experienced tried to appear as cool and unperturbed as possible. Even with Rose of Sharon’s prohibitions against weapons, it wasn’t uncommon for tempers to flare and give way to threats or worse.

John watched the scene below him quietly from the cracked door, waiting to see what the kid would do. At least he wasn’t dumb enough to try and take a hostage; if he were, Old Timmy Greene, the bartender, would have pulled the gun he kept under the counter and shot him dead. Hell, it was a small wonder someone hadn’t put a couple rounds into the kid and his friends already.

“You get down here now, John Quinn! You and me got a score to settle!”

John Quinn sighed and pushed the door open all the way. “The only score you got to settle is with Rose. It ain’t good manners to go around shouting and pounding your chest and putting holes in folks’ roofs.”

Every eye in the lobby turned to him. He stood there, the cold morning light from Rose of Sharon’s bedroom window illuminating him from behind. His features disappeared, blurred and became indistinct, until there was only the specter of an old man, a gun in his hand, his body covered with the marks of wounds that had scarred him but hadn’t killed him. Billy Joe’s men raised their guns, but he snapped at them, “Put them things down, you fools! You’ll kill his bitch!”

John Quinn’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to bring your guys to town, son?”

“The money, John Quinn.”

“I’m not giving you a damn thing, boy. Go home.”

The hard expression on Billy Joe’s face wavered for just a moment. His men looked to him, but they missed his uncertainty. They only saw steely determination, and they turned their heads back to John Quinn, reassured that they would get what they’d came for.

“Then I guess I’ll have to show you I ain’t fooling around.” Billy Joe kept his eyes on John Quinn and holstered one of his guns. He cast a single glance to the side, and then he enacted his plan. His free hand snapped out like a snake striking, and it grabbed the blouse of the girl who had the misfortune to be standing next to him. She screamed and she struggled, and Billy Joe pulled her in as close as he could. He was fighting to get his arm around her, his gun against her temple, and to do it all while speaking, while not taking his eyes off of John Quinn.

“You get down here and get on your knees with your hat between your hands, and I won’t shoot the whore. You hear me? I’m going to–”

He’d spread his attention too thin. The girl had nearly struggled free, and when he turned to pull her back, a shot rang out. People screamed and scrambled away. Billy Joe dropped to his knees, eyes wide with fear and surprise and pain, his revolver and the girl forgotten as his hands clawed at the hole that had suddenly appeared in his throat, his men too confused and frightened to return fire on the man who had shot their boss right through his neck. The building was in chaos, and John Quinn looked down on it all, smoke trailing from the barrel of his revolver, some ancient death-dealing ghost.

He took a deep breath and he called out, “Take him and go. I ain’t going to have no fool bleeding to death on Rose’s fine floor.” His words echoed like a lion’s roar. The screaming stopped. The movement stopped. Billy Joe’s men looked up at John Quinn uncertainly then back down at their leader. He clasped one hand to his neck, as if he could stem the flow of blood with his fingers, and with the other he clawed desperately at the air, reaching for help, for forgiveness, for one last attempt to hurt the man who had done this horrible thing to him.

The sound of the hammer locking into position filled the air, almost as loud as a gunshot in the quiet lobby. “I’m not saying it again.”

The two boys looked at each other, and without speaking a word, they leaned down and picked up Billy Joe, dragged his increasingly pale and motionless body out the door. John Quinn watched them go, and then his eyes scanned the room out of habit. What he saw unsettled him.

Every eye in the place was looked on him. Every face was filled with anger, with fear. Even the girl who’s life he had just saved was looking at him with a look he couldn’t quite place; she wasn’t afraid of him, exactly, but she was terribly afraid of something.

He turned around to find Rose of Sharon, but she found him first. She slapped him. Hard.

“John Quinn, you fool, don’t you know what you’ve done? You shot Red Peterson’s brother!” Her lower lip quivered, tears welling up in her eyes. “God damn you, John Quinn. You shot Red Peterson’s brother, and now he’s going to kill us all.”

Forty Feet Between Them, Pt. 2

A few hours later, the moon sat high in the cold night sky behind clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon. It burned like a lantern behind frosted glass, and the stars did not shine. John Quinn stepped into the street and took a deep breath and smiled to himself. The satchel that lay slung low across his shoulders was heavy with the night’s winnings, and the round of ale he had bought to soothe the egos of the men who had last to him had done little to lessen its weight. He pulled his overcoat.

A voice, high and with a faint mocking tone to it, called out from above him. “And there goes John Quinn to sleep in the fields under the open desert sky. Why don’t you come back inside where it’s warm, John?”

John turned and looked up to see Rose of Sharon smirking down at him from the second-story balcony of her building. She was wearing one of the dresses she had made herself, drawing silk and velvet and cotton from an untold number of garments and fashioning them into a red dress that shimmered in the light and clung to her figure while still maintaining a respectable degree of modesty. After all, there was a business to be run and it wouldn’t do to have the clients confusing her with her employees. John smiled up at her and tipped his black felt hat. “You won’t be having any more of my money tonight, Rose. Some other day.” He turned to leave, but she called out after him.

“I don’t want your money, John Quinn! I just want a body to talk to.”

He cocked his head a bit to the side. There was a game they played sometime, teasing and taunting at each other. A playful jab danced at the edge of his tongue, but instead he looked up and past her at that starless night, at the moon hidden away behind clouds and he shivered though he was not cold.

Rose of Sharon saw that John’s resolve was cracking and pouted at him. “Come on, John. Enrique tried to square away some of his gambling debts with a bottle of some clear liquor he says he carried five hundred miles. Come up and have a drink.”

John laughed and shook his head. “I never could say ‘No’ to a woman with a strong spirit.” He walked back inside Rosie’s leaving the cold desert night behind him.

By the time John reached the doorman, Rose of Sharon was already standing on the second-story landing waving for the man to let John pass with his coat and his gun. John slid through the crowd, the mass of people still quite large but somewhat quieter than when he had first sat down to play poker and made his way up the stairs. He walked past the other bedrooms, some open and empty, some shut with the soft noises barely audible over the din below, and stepped into Rose of Sharon’s room.

It was the largest room in the building other than the floor downstairs, and Rose of Sharon had decorated its walls with gifts from lovers and suitors the world over. A serape from Mexico. The horns of a sheep from Colorado. The skull of a great bear from some land to the north whose name she could not recall. Bones and art and clothes and furniture and delicacies from as far as men could travel by foot. There was a bed, large enough for two people to sleep side-by-side on their backs and still stretch out some. There was a crowded bookshelf. There were two doors, one which opened out onto the balcony Rose of Sharon had called to John from and one which locked and served as a safe. Finally, there was a couch, and here Rose of Sharon lay with rehearsed grace and feigned impatience. “You certainly know how to keep a lady waiting, John Quinn. Why, I almost thought you’d gotten lost on your way upstairs.”

John said nothing, but arched one of his eyebrows and sat beside her. She looked much the same as she had when they’d first met ten years before. She was younger than him by over a decade, and her face was just starting to show the wear from a life spent laughing, smiling, frowning, shouting, and crying. She was a strong woman, but expressive. She was unapologetic about letting the world know what she was thinking and feeling. John saw a few lone strands of grey in her chestnut hair, but they blended well with its natural sheen. He wanted to put his arm around her, pull her close and kiss her. Instead he took the glass that she offered and sipped at the clear liquid within. “Good,” he said. “Kind of sweet.”

She nodded and sipped from her own glass. “Tell me, John. What were you doing standing out there looking up at the night sky?”

John almost said, “Nothing,” but looking into Rose of Sharon’s hazel eyes, he knew she’d get him to speak his mind eventually, whether it was now or after another glass of Enrique’s liquor. He sighed, picked his words carefully. “Do you remember decades ago when there were a few years where there was barely any sun at all? Probably not. You were probably just a baby, bawling and drooling in your daddy’s arms.” Rose of Sharon punched him in the arm, hard, and John laughed. This was another game they played, and John respected her for playing it well. “Well, on nights like this I get to think about those years. I was just a boy myself, just beginning to get stubble on my face and bad ideas about girls in my brain. It was bad. Nothing grew. Not enough sunlight, you see. No rain or snow either, but it was colder than I remember it being since. No seasons. Just one long grey nothing.” He took another drink of the liquor, held it on his tongue for a bit before swallowing. “Folks died. A lot of folks died.” He shook his head. “Call me a sentimental old fool, I guess, but on nights like these, I look up, and it’s like there’s nothing above us.”

“You’re a sentimental old fool, John Quinn,” Rose of Sharon said. She said it softly and sweetly, and as she said it, she took the empty glass from John’s hand and set it on the floor. She cradled his body in her arms and laid him down so his head was resting on her lap. She ran her fingers through his hair, gently at first and then mussing it like she was petting her favorite dog. “This isn’t like you, John Quinn. Where’s the gunslinger that doesn’t need nobody? Where’s the grizzled, hard-drinking man that spends his nights sleeping under the stars with the snakes and the coyotes?”

John snorted. “I didn’t turn around and come back so I could be mocked by a little girl in a homemade dress, Rose.”

She slapped him on the top of the head. Not hard, but he wasn’t expecting it, and he jumped. “No, you came back inside because you’re afraid of the dark and you’re sick of cleaving to rattlers for companionship.”

John chuckled, fumbled around on the ground for the glass, held it up. “That must surely be it.” Rose of Sharon refilled it, and they sat in silence for a while. “I busted some kid in poker earlier.”

“Oh? Who?”

John shrugged. “Some brat. I went all in with a flush, and he tried to match me with a straight.”

“His own fault for not reading the cards. Should have seen the flush on the table.”

“He’d been drinking. That’ll make any young man cocksure. He got real upset, though. Took to calling me a cheater.”

Rose of Sharon laughed. “Why, John, if ever there were a sign that you’ve been away from these parts for too long, it is surely that the youth isn’t afraid of you.”

John ignored her, stared straight up at the ceiling and at some point past it. “It’s a cruel world to live in, where an old man can take everything from a young man.”

“Oh, stop that. You aren’t that old, and you didn’t swindle him. He bet all his money his fool self and he paid for it. You taught him a valuable lesson, if anything.”

“I know, I know. I remember being his age, though. Young and angry. It’s a shame this world doesn’t have more to offer a boy like that. I think he’d take well to good, honest work.” John sighed. “I just–”

“Hush, John Quinn,” Rose of Sharon said softly. She laid her hand alongside his head, tilted it up slightly so he was looking into her eyes.

He hushed.

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